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Investing in the Midlands

December 2011

Peter Plisner

Network Rail is exploring ways of improving two key areas of the Midlands rail network – the investment will benefit both passenger and freight traffic. Peter Plisner has been looking at plans for pinchpoints in Alvechurch and Norton Bridge, where a new loop and flyover are being considered to increase capacity and reduce delays

Although maintenance and renewals on the rail network are a continual process, there is always a temptation to postpone or shelve big investment programmes during a recession. The reality is that economic downturns often mean the number of passengers fall and so, too, does farebox revenue. Nevertheless, in the Midlands, Network Rail is pressing ahead with plans for two major improvements and has already been consulting stakeholders in an effort to further refine its proposals.

The first scheme involves the popular Birmingham Cross City Line. Once a ‘Cinderella’ among Midlands rail routes, electrification in the early 1990s meant new rolling stock and more frequent services.

Passenger numbers increased so much that a few years later the train service was increased again to six trains an hour. But not all parts of the line have seen such a big enhancement of services. The southern terminus at Redditch only gets two trains an hour. One of the problems is that the Worcesteshire town, which is still growing, remains on a single track connection to Barnt Green, where it branches away from the mainline to Bristol. The existing single-track line limits the amount of services that can run to Redditch and nearby Alvechurch, the other station on the branch.

According to Network Rail, by 2020 the total number of passenger journeys into Birmingham in general is predicted to increase by 32 per cent. Jo Kaye, route director at Network Rail says: ‘The Cross City Line is one of the busiest routes into Birmingham city centre, with the line expected to be operating at around 115 per cent capacity, in terms of the number of passengers on trains during the morning and evening rush hour. There is an anticipated population growth in Redditch itself, which this scheme will help to prepare for.’ Catering for that kind of demand will require an increase in the number of services to Redditch, so Network Rail is making plans to help provide them.

It’s proposing to build a new ‘loop’ section of track, which would start just north of Alvechurch Station and run south towards Redditch for approximately 2km. The new piece of track would mean that the number of services could increase to three per hour in each direction. Construction of a new track would also mean a second platform would be needed at Alvechurch station. But some are already asking why the loop line has to be so long. Why not just have a short section of double track at Alvechurch Station?

Kaye says: ‘The length and location of loop being proposed was developed to minimise disruption to local residents, to minimise any new infrastructure, but also to provide operational flexibility. If the loop length was much shorter, there would be greater potential for service delays due to waiting for lines to be available before proceeding. The loop length and location has been validated via timetable modelling.’

The improvements on the branch line to Redditch form part of a wider scheme that also includes electrification of the line from Barnt Green to nearby Bromsgrove and the construction of a new station there. Kaye says: ‘Although both schemes are being delivered under the same programme portfolio – along with the Bromsgrove Electrification project – the Bromsgrove station scheme is third-party funded, whereas the Redditch scheme is funded as part of Network Rail’s Control Period 4 settlement. Although the schemes are independent of each other, it is intended that once these projects have been delivered, the Cross City service will also extend to Bromsgrove on completion of the electrification work.

‘Three trains per hour will run to Redditch, via the Alvechurch passing loop, and three trains per hour will run to Bromsgrove.’

If the proposals for the loop line get the final go ahead, work could start on the scheme in Autumn 2013 and be completed by summer 2014.

The other major scheme is on a much larger scale in the Stafford area. There, Network Rail is exploring options to improve the rail network at a major junction on the West Coast Main Line in Norton Bridge. It’s designed to help deliver what Network Rail says will be a ‘more reliable network for passengers’. Despite the completion of a £9bn upgrade of the line, growth of both passenger and freight traffic means additional trains paths are needed on the route. But why wasn’t the work done as part of the WCML upgrade?

Jo Kaye says: ‘The upgrade of the West Coast Main Line was primarily to facilitate Pendolino tilting trains and needed to be delivered in time for the December 2008 timetable change. Completion of that work does not mean there is nothing more to be done on the route. We are always looking at ways to improve punctuality, reliability and capacity and the Norton Bridge scheme is a case in point.’

Capacity on the WCML is becoming increasingly restricted and, according to one Network Rail document seen by Rail Professional, certain parts of the line are likely to be fully utilised by 2016. The document says: ‘We need to look to the future to understand how to respond to the challenges posed by the success of the railway and to look at ways in which we can meet growing demand.’

That’s the background to what’s being termed the Stafford Area Improvement Project. The railway in the Stafford area sits at the centre of a complex network of lines. At Norton Bridge, some 5km north- west of Stafford, there is a critical junction where trains travelling from London to Liverpool meet trains from Birmingham to Manchester.

The current ‘flat’ junction reduces train speeds and causes conflicts between train movements, resulting in capacity constraints and reduced reliability. Network Rail maintains it’s important to note that delays caused at Norton Bridge can spread to other parts of the network, reducing the performance of train services over a much wider area. Kaye maintains that the changes will also help to improve operational flexibility in the Norton Bridge area.

She says: ‘At present, Birmingham to Manchester services have to weave across the whole of the West Coast Main Line to access the Stone branch towards Stoke and Manchester. Once the route is set and points and signals are interlocked, nothing else can move on the main line until the Manchester train has accessed the branch. This is an inefficient operating situation that restricts train movements in the area.’

The improvement scheme is focused on eliminating conflicts between trains and increasing line speeds over the junction in order to free up capacity for both additional passenger and freight services. Various concepts have been developed following an initial assessment and consultation period last year.

Network Rail has now been consulting on a £200m scheme, which involves building a flyover. The scheme will involve the construction of up to 5km of track, with various cuttings and embankments. Public consultation will continue throughout 2011, before a final scheme is prepared in 2012. Approval for the project is expected to be granted by Easter 2014, with work commencing later that year.

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norton Bridge is currently the site of a critical ‘flat’ junction where trains travelling from london to liverpool meet trains going from Birmingham to Manchester
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